The Playgoer: The Ensemble

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Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Ensemble

by Abigail Katz

David Benedict reported in Variety yesterday that the Royal Shakespeare Company will rely on ensemble casting rather than star casting for almost all of its key productions. The ensemble of 44 will be under contract for 2 1/2 years. What? No stars? On this side of the pond that's like no chocolate. Or no alcohol. Or just plain stupid. How is a world renowned theatre to survive without stars? And don't stars have rights too?

Of course I jest, and I applaud the move. Not that I have anything against stars, I like stars fine, especially when they can back up their stardom with real chops. But there is something quite magical about a true ensemble, just look to this last season with the remarkable chemistry and life of the Steppenwolf cast in Tracy Letts' AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY.

The ensemble is nothing new in this country. The Group Theatre is one of our most famous examples. But the challenge has always been how to make it work and make it last. Other companies have versions of an ongoing ensemble- Atlantic Theater Company comes to mind, whose productions pretty much always include some ensemble members. The Civilians has a roster of "Associate Artists" from which it casts for various projects. But it's not quite the same as a set ensemble that is contracted for a certain number of plays over a certain period of time. I don't know the details of the contracts or if there are any provisions for outside work, but perhaps RSC is on to something with this idea of a specified time commitment. It grew out of the ensemble they created for a run of Shakespeare's history plays. It's a very compelling idea.

Perhaps ensembles are only meant to have a limited run, and of course the only way to keep an ensemble intact for an extended period is to pay the members. Then again, there is an argument to be made for a more loosely structured model that can exist and remain dynamic for years, as we have seen with Atlantic and Steppenwolf. It will be interesting to see if companies here follow RSC's lead and try their own version of an ensemble for a set period and set number of plays. Thoughts, readers?


Sources report that producers for the Alaska-themed tuner have approached Broadway's go-to animal trainer, William Berloni about working pit-bulls into the show. No word of a bite yet. It could add insurance costs to the production whose capitalization is already in the stratosphere. Goodness, if this is what Alaska's governer does to the budget of a Broadway show, just think...oh let's not go there.

On a serious note, readers, fellow blogger Mike Lawler posted on his website ecoTheater that he is once again battling cancer. Mike does incredible work educating us and keeping us informed about enivironmental awareness in the theatre world and measures that are being taken in this effort. Please log on to his site and send support and good wishes to him and his family. We're with you Mike! Get back to blogging soon!


Canvass Crasher said...

RSC doesn't need stars, the gub'mint backs 'em. Be sweet if we had something like that in A-MUR-ica!

Anonymous said...

One of the gifts of cancer is how it heightens one's sense of community. Last year, while fighting my initial bout of cancer I wrote about how cancer is like Christmas -- and I meant it. The Christmases of my youth were full of not only material gifts, but family, love, camaraderie and tight community connections. Cancer has taught me the true nature of friendship and community -- and the support I have received in this so-called virtual world of the Internet has been heart warming. Thank you Abigail for your support--and I'll be back.